King of the World: The Life of Cyrus the Great 
by Matt Waters.
Oxford, 255 pp., £21.99, September 2022, 978 0 19 092717 2
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Christian evangelicals​ in the United States sometimes like to identify the ancient Persian emperor Cyrus the Great with Donald Trump. Both are vessels for God’s plan on earth. This may seem surprising: Trump is no more obviously Christian than Cyrus, who died half a millennium before Christ was born, and neither would score highly on a morality test. But, it turns out, the leakier the vessel, the greater the god. Evangelicals find Cyrus in the Old Testament, where he makes a brief appearance as a man from the east (‘the rising sun’) in the Book of Isaiah – supposedly the words of an eighth-century BCE Hebrew prophet, but in fact written during the sixth-century reign of Cyrus himself, or soon thereafter. Cyrus, although not an Israelite, is a messiah or ‘anointed’ one (in Greek a ‘christ’, from the same root as ‘chrism’), who is destined to rebuild Jerusalem after its destruction by the Babylonians. This is why, if you follow the Bible, Cyrus sent the Judeans home after capturing Babylon in 539 and allowed them to restore Solomon’s temple. (The idea that he also paid for it, found in the much later Book of Ezra, is probably a subsequent invention.)

Cyrus didn’t do this because it was the right thing to do or because he had any particular sympathy with the Israelites or their peculiar religion. Isaiah’s story is compatible with modern scholarly understandings of Cyrus’ actions, which point to rational self-interest – not least his desire to put friendly allies on the road to Egypt (eventually conquered by his son Cambyses). Isaiah himself says that Cyrus doesn’t acknowledge or even know the god of Israel. But the fact that Cyrus isn’t a believer makes the role of God in the story all the more powerful and interesting. It’s convenient for supporters of the Trump-Cyrus theory that so little is known about the circumstances in which the Hebrew captives returned to Israel, or indeed about Cyrus himself. We have no record of when he was born or how he came to power, nor do we have dates for many of his conquests. Matt Waters devotes much of his new biography to sorting through such problems.

The outline at least is clear. Sometime in the eighth century bce, Cyrus’ ancestors migrated from Central Asia to the Zagros mountains in what is now Iran, east of the Fertile Crescent and the Persian Gulf. They mingled with the local Elamites on the plains below. The kingdom of Elam was a long-standing rival of the Mesopotamian farming states north of the Gulf, and in the seventh century was finally subdued by Assyria, at that time the greatest empire ever known. Conquest meant opportunities for ambitious Iranians across the old Elamite lands, including those in a region of the southern Zagros that the Elamites called Anshan, but which was known in the Iranian language as Parsa; the Greeks called it Persis and it is now Fars.

A small local dynasty established itself here some time in the seventh century. The archaeological record suggests increasing settlement in the region during this period, but we know little more than the names of its early kings: Teispes, Cyrus, Cambyses. There is no doubt that they benefited from the downfall of the Elamite state, and they may have helped to bring it about. But Elam remained their principal model: they wrote in the Elamite language and used Elamite-style imagery on their royal seals. ‘Cyrus’ is probably an Elamite name.

Our first indication that this dynasty had wider ambitions comes in 550 bce, when a man from Anshan called Kurush – officially Cyrus II, but also the only Cyrus we know anything about – took the throne of the Medes, another group of Iranians who had settled in the mountains further north. It is unclear whether he did so by inheritance or by force, but it was the first step in an extraordinary imperial career. As Waters puts it, ‘the irresistible force that was Cyrus did not meet an immovable object for a very long time.’

After consolidating power across Iran, Kurush headed north-west across the Tigris into Anatolia. In the mid-540s he took the gold-rich kingdom of Lydia, and then the wealthy Greek ports on what is now the Turkish coast of the Aegean, long before the so-called Persian Wars between his successors and the Greeks of the southern Balkans. Cyrus himself was entirely uninterested in these Greeks further west, who had much less to offer a new empire. Herodotus captures this attitude in his history of Greco-Persian relations: when a Spartan ambassador arrived at the Lydian capital of Sardis to warn Cyrus that he would incur the wrath of the Spartans if he harmed any Greek city, Cyrus responded that he had never heard of Sparta.

He was more interested in campaigning in Scythia to the north and Egypt to the south, as well as the bountiful lands of Central and Southern Asia, where he founded new forts and settlements as far east as modern Tajikistan. By the end of his life, he ruled a territory far larger than Babylon or even Assyria, covering more or less the whole of the world known to Persians with the exception of Egypt. His successors enlarged it to around two million square miles, a scale matched only by Rome and China six hundred years later. It was an empire not so much of land, though it covers a lot of it, and not at all of sea – Cambyses assembled the first Persian navy from the fleets of friendly naval powers – but of overland routes. Cyrus controlled his territories from the roads running through them, roads built in most cases by Assyrian kings. Along them he had absolute power, reflected in his public image: of all the long beards in the reliefs that decorate Persian architecture, his is the longest and most elaborate.

Apart from pure narrative, a genre which makes most professional historians deeply uncomfortable, there are two approaches to popular history. One asks ‘How do you know?’ and digs down rather than across. In the case of ancient history, these books tend to emphasise how little we really know, and the importance of sceptical attention to the evidence that does exist. They are detective stories where the sources are the suspects: most are red herrings or dead ends and the denouement usually exposes not a murderer but a false conviction. When it works, as in Mary Beard’s SPQR or Eric Cline’s 1177 BC, we feel we are studying with the author. The other approach asks ‘Why should you care?’ The focus here is on drawing out a bigger story, with less explicit attention to the problems of the evidence. The point of reading (and writing) books of this sort – such as those by Walter Scheidel – is that they deal with topics you wouldn’t study in universities. Waters’s book is the former kind, and it gives a good sense of what it must be like to take a class with him at the University of Wisconsin. He doesn’t duck the gaps and complications in the evidence, from a long discussion of whether Cyrus was the king’s real name to the conflicting traditions on the origin of Cyrus’ wife, which Waters resolves by suggesting there were quite a few of them. But he doesn’t get bogged down in the detail, relegating the finer points to appendices.

Misunderstandings have long compromised interpretation of ancient west Asian history. Herodotus and other authors writing in Greek believed the Persians were originally subject to the Medes, but Waters notes that they portray the Medes as a great empire on the basis of the only model they have: the Persians. Median kings in the same tales follow models set by contemporary Greek tyrants. The Assyrians, by contrast, who actually dealt with the Medes, describe them as separate communities based in fortified mountain redoubts and answerable to ‘city-lords’. Perhaps joining with the Babylonians to overthrow Assyria in the late seventh century brought the Medes together for the first time, but archaeological work suggests that Median centres were actually in decline in the earlier sixth century – precisely the era that Greek sources would have them at the height of their power.

This helps to explain their vulnerability in this period to another mountain people, but Waters points out that Greek stories of those Persian kings come from oral traditions often based in Persian propaganda, to which Herodotus – born in Caria as a Persian subject – would have had privileged access. Stories of Median power help to underline Cyrus’ achievement in defeating them, while the legend that he was the grandson of a Median king, exposed at birth but rescued by a shepherd, placed Cyrus in the history of conquered people.

Greek stories of Persian kings and their wars, told several generations after the events in question, can give us only a fraction of the story. Waters’s book is a self-avowed example of the New Achaemenid History, which has transformed the study of ancient Iran since the 1980s by giving as much attention to the non-Greek sources as to the Greek. Most of these are recorded on clay tablets that have languished unread in museum archives for many decades after being excavated. But painstaking work by the few scholars lucky enough to have learned the right languages is bringing to light more and more of the evidence in Persian, Elamite and Akkadian.

We have a good deal of information in these languages on Cyrus’ successors, and in particular on Darius I, who organised a coup against Cyrus’ second son Bardiya, invented a script for Persian and wrote a lot in it. Cyrus himself has left us much less, and all in Babylonian Akkadian: a couple of inscriptions commemorating building work in Babylonian cities, a spiteful account of the reign of Nabonidus (the last king of Babylon), and most famously the so-called ‘Cyrus Cylinder’. This little clay barrel was buried in the foundations of a Babylonian temple during restorations, as was standard practice, with additional copies of its inscription made for mortal eyes. The message was important: it records the failings of Nabonidus, the divine choice of Cyrus to right these wrongs, his magnificent, peaceful entry into Babylon with the city’s chief god, Marduk, by his side and his good works in restoring the fortunes of the city, its inhabitants and their gods. There are also some less enthusiastic accounts from Babylonians themselves.

One way that Waters gets round the lack of evidence from Cyrus’ reign is by looking at the lives of his daughters, Udusa and Irtashduna (Atossa and Artystone in Greek), who later became wives of Darius I. They both turn up in an extraordinary set of documents known (from the site where they were found) as the Persepolis Fortification Tablets. This administrative archive dating to the reign of Darius I in the late sixth and early fifth century is full of clay tablets inscribed in Elamite, still the bureaucratic language of the Persian empire. Most detail the collection, storage and distribution of crops and livestock, revealing a lot about their owners in the process, and are authenticated with the personal seals of a large number of administrators and landholders. These include Irtashduna, and the archive reveals that royal women like her had large estates, managed their own business dealings and travelled widely. References to Udusa, more famous in the Greek tradition as Darius’ main wife and the mother of Xerxes, have only recently been identified, but it is already clear that she was a party animal: one tablet records 11,368 quarts of wine served in her presence.

Cyrus also looked to the past: he respected recent Babylonian history, if not its recent kings, and he consciously emulated the now safely ancient Assyrians. Like an Assyrian king, Cyrus emphasised his credentials as a representative of a family dynasty and of the gods, which in his case meant an eclectic bunch of Iranian, Elamite and Mesopotamian divinities, although later Persian kings focused more exclusively on the eastern Iranian god Auramazda in a tradition that became Zoroastrianism, and like the Assyrian kings he styled himself ‘King of the World’.

Assyrian kings saw themselves as the rulers by divine right of everything between the Upper and the Lower Sea (the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean), and that is the way Cyrus describes his empire on the Cyrus Cylinder: ‘All the kings who sit on thrones from all corners of the world, from the Upper Sea to the Lower Sea … they all brought their weighty tribute and kissed my feet.’ He puts the same idea a different way in a building inscription from the Mesopotamian port of Ur, still using standard Akkadian phrasing: ‘The great gods have delivered into my hands all the lands.’ This is essentially a defensive position, unlike the aggressive celebration of specifically Iranian (‘Aryan’) culture and identity undertaken by Darius and his successors, who started from a position of much greater strength.

Some of Cyrus’ centres of power were cities seized from others – Median Ecbatana in the mountains, Babylon and Elamite Susa in the plain – and he moved between them with the seasons and for different festivals. But he remained fiercely attached to his mountain homeland, at least as Herodotus tells it: when his officials suggested that the Persians should leave the harsh environment of Anshan and settle elsewhere, Cyrus refused, saying that ‘soft lands breed soft men.’

He built his own capital of Pasargadae in Anshan in a valley 1900 metres above sea level. It was the site of a decisive victory over the Medes early in his career; as Greek writers later relayed, the Medes had the Persians on the back foot, but their womenfolk came to the rescue: ‘Castigating the retreating men, the women displayed their private parts and asked if the men wished to return from whence they came.’ The new city was constructed around a square park, three hundred metres long on each side, with canals and dams bringing water to the site from the nearby Pulvar river. The Old Persian term for such gardens, paradayada, was transliterated into Greek as paradeisos, and was the word chosen by the Greek translators of the Hebrew Bible for the ‘garden’ of Eden.

Pasargadae was also the site of Cyrus’ tomb, a plain gabled chapel built of enormous stone slabs on a high platform half a mile to the south-west of the main site, dominating the plain. It is still intact more than 2500 years later, and was apparently only half-robbed by the time Alexander the Great arrived in 330 bce having defeated the last Persian king, Darius III, and conquered the empire Cyrus built. The sarcophagus itself was still accessible through a narrow doorway, Alexander’s entourage reported, but partly destroyed, with the king’s bones strewn around. They were also shown an enclosure built for the tomb’s ineffective guardian, who received a horse from the authorities every month to sacrifice to Cyrus. Alexander ordered the tomb to be restored to its original state and the original grave goods replaced, including a Babylonian tunic, Median trousers, scimitars and jewellery. Then he plastered up the door.

This was not the only homage Alexander paid to Cyrus. He had modelled his entry into Babylon in 331 bce on Cyrus’, even paying his respects to Marduk, and local Babylonian sources call him ‘King of the World’. Far to the east, Alexandria Eschate (‘furthest away’) replaced the border post of Cyropolis on the banks of the Jaxartes south-east of the Aral Sea.

It was an obvious model: Alexander was also the scion of a small mountain kingdom who outwitted the urbane and literate powers of the plain. His imperial achievement, though far more famous than that of Cyrus, was, as Waters puts it, more ‘ephemeral’. The empire Cyrus won lasted 220 years; after his visit to Pasargadae, Alexander’s lasted just seven more years before he drank himself to death in his early thirties, leaving his generals to tear his territories apart. Cyrus, by contrast, managed to live into his fifties or even sixties, dying in battle in 530 bce somewhere on the north-eastern frontier.

Of the various stories that circulated about the circumstances of Cyrus’ demise, the one Herodotus preferred placed the action east of the Jaxartes, in a campaign against the Scythian Massagetae, who were ruled by a queen called Tomyris. When she rebuffed an offer of marriage from Cyrus, he tricked her son into thinking that the bulk of his army had retreated, leaving behind a small rearguard and a banquet prepared with a large quantity of wine. When the Scythians had slaughtered the soldiers and made the most of their unexpected booty, Cyrus attacked. The prince was captured, sobered up and committed suicide. Tomyris herself then led her army against Cyrus, drowning his decapitated head in a bowl of blood in revenge.

Why should we care? Cyrus has received almost universal praise since his own time, and in ancient traditions is famed as a just ruler. Plato presents him as a guardian of free speech and reasoned argument, Cicero as a model of righteous empire. According to Isaiah, he was destined to ‘make justice shine upon the nations’. In the 20th century, Iranian shahs put him at the centre of national ideology, as an emblem of the country’s pre-Islamic past. Cyrus has long held out an alluring prospect of benevolent tyranny, and of liberty through order and imperial subjection.

This is, of course, an illusion. The peaceful capture of Babylon is remembered over the brutal battle for Opis a few weeks earlier. The return of the exiled Israelites is commemorated, but not the plight of the Phokaians, who fled a Persian siege of their city. The evangelicals are closer to the mark: Cyrus didn’t do things because they were good, but because they worked. What we make of that tells us more about ourselves than it does about him.

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